Interview: @theupindex, A Twitter Handle That Has Won Plaudits For Chronicling Infrastructure Success Story Of Uttar Pradesh

by India Infrahub - Mar 24, 2022 07:48 PM +05:30 IST
Interview: @theupindex, A Twitter Handle That Has Won Plaudits For Chronicling Infrastructure Success Story Of Uttar Pradesh
@theupindex
Snapshot
  • The Uttar Pradesh Index (@theupindex) has earned a lot of appreciation and social media following for providing detailed updates on the various infrastructure projects currently underway in the state.

    From expressways to metro rail systems to greenfield airports, Uttar Pradesh has made rapid strides in the last few years. In an email interview, @theupindex shared his thoughts on the key drivers behind Uttar Pradesh's infrastructure success story.

    Here are edited excerpts from the interview.

Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview

We do understand your need for anonymity. Tell us something about yourself without revealing much, especially your educational and professional background?

First, I would like to thank Swarajya for reaching out to me and giving me this opportunity to share my views. Second, to be honest, I am not an expert on infrastructure. I observe things from a commoner's perspective. That's how I track projects and report to the people. I have been trying to present infrastructure updates in such a way that people feel connected and can relate to those projects, especially people from Uttar Pradesh(UP).

I come from a small city Deoria on the UP-Bihar border in Purvanchal. I did my schooling in my hometown. I am a science graduate from Delhi University and a certified insurance professional from the Insurance Institute of India. I have been settled in Noida for the last ten years.

How did you develop such a level of interest in the infrastructure sector?

The interest was always there since my college days, not specifically for infrastructure but for the overall economic development of the country in general and my home state in particular. I used to track projects, policies out of my interest. Last year, when I was looking for details about the medical college built in my hometown, I found that very few people know about such projects because mainstream media (especially English media) is not extensively reporting about these projects. TV news channels spend hours every day covering cinema gossip, newspapers dedicate multiple pages to such gossip, but there are no dedicated programs that focus on the infrastructure sector. In fact, Hindi media and some young volunteers on YouTube are doing a better job.

Getting a government medical college for a small town like ours is huge. However, looking at news reports, you will not be able to understand or appreciate the enormity of such projects. That's when I decided to start reporting on development projects ongoing in my home state so that people at large are aware of the transformation happening in Uttar Pradesh.

A Twitter handle was set up in March last year and the journey started. In fact, today (24th March) is the first anniversary of The UP Index Twitter handle. There is a large audience out there looking for positive stories of development. The response has been so good that now people share my posts on other social media platforms where I am not active, including WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook.

What explains UP's ability to build so many expressways? What has been the key challenge?

See, the ability was always there. For a state as large as UP with a large young population, the question was never of ability but of intent and integrity of the government of the day. Previous governments lacked both intent as well as integrity. They did not possess the necessary vision either. Earlier governments worked on a couple of big-ticket projects in isolation; there was no vision for holistic development of all regions of the state. That's why they could not move beyond one expressway, metro, park, or riverfront project.

All this changed in 2017 when Yogi Adityanath took over as Chief Minister of the state. His government started with a sense of urgency to make up for the lost years in previous regimes. The vision was for the development of the entire state without leaving any corner of the state.

Even as they initiated the Purvanchal expressway for the eastern part, Yogi government also began work on Bundelkhand expressway for the southern part of the state. Ganga expressway was planned as a second east-west corridor covering northern parts. A slew of link expressways was also initiated, including Gorakhpur link expressway, Ballia link expressway, Haridwar link expressway etc. to ensure connectivity in all corners of the state.

Same vision was applied to other sectors also. Metro projects in multiple cities simultaneously, one district-one medical college, airport connectivity in tier-2 and tier-3 cities and so on.

When you notice that one government in just five years can initiate half a dozen expressway projects with strict adherence to completion timelines, you know that the state always had the ability. What changed was the intent, integrity and vision of the government. And here we are talking about state-funded expressways only. In the same five-year period, we have to remember that the state also undertook land acquisition for centrally funded expressways such as Lucknow Kanpur expressway and Delhi Meerut expressway.

Land acquisition in such big-ticket projects is a big challenge. How UP has been able to turn the tide? From the gory days of Bhatta Parsaul, we have seen a smooth land acquisition process in UP. Please explain what have been the fundamental changes.

Land acquisition has been a tricky issue not just in UP but in other states also. What we are seeing today in Maharashtra used to happen in UP five years back. Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail project is delayed due to land acquisition; all metro lines in Mumbai are delayed due to land acquisition. Practically every big-ticket infrastructure project is facing this issue in Maharashtra today.

In UP, the issues which impacted land acquisition in the past can be attributed to:

One – previous governments failed to convince people about the benefits of large infrastructure projects. The public just did not trust the previous administrations, partially because of their past experiences during project execution.

Two – most of the agitations against land acquisition are sponsored, in my view, by vested interests. Poor law and order situation helps vested interests to get away with their propaganda. We all know the previous administration's poor record of the law and order situation.

Three – in some instances, the government's intent also impacts land acquisition, especially when the same political party does not run central and state governments. State govt, in such cases, deliberately delays land acquisition for central projects. That's what we are seeing today in Maharashtra.

Four – Another issue impacting the land acquisition was corruption in the disbursement of compensation.

The state government in UP was able to clear all the roadblocks. Three steps which helped the state administration overcome the challenges in land acquisition – district level committee set-up to directly talk to land owners, fair and transparent disbursal of compensation and quick effective grievance redressing system. And the result was there for all to see. As I said earlier, the government has not only been able to provide land for state projects and all centrally funded projects like highways, expressways, freight corridors, metro projects, airports, etc.

The infrastructure push in UP has been a real game-changer. Do you think there is potential for other states(especially in North) to adopt some of the best practices from UP? Lessons for other states? Can UP gain by adopting global best practices for its infra projects.

As I said, the adoption of best practices by other states depends on the government's intent there. I don't see any other state very keen on replicating the UP success story, at least not in northern states. The states in the south and west are anyways ahead of others in terms of infrastructure and economic growth. It is for the northern states to learn from each other's success stories. And here, I do not see any state very keen to learn. Bihar has of late started pushing for expressways. They are planning three expressways. However, all three will be centrally funded projects, none funded by the state's own resources like UP is doing with UPEIDA.

This lack of openness to learning from others should change. States should learn from each other's success. There is a lot to learn from UP. From planning to land acquisition to funding to execution and completion – UP has shown the way.

As far as global best practices are concerned, UP has been very keen to adopt the latest technology anda project management techniques. For example, UP Metro was the first in India to use double T-girders to construct the station concourse. Similarly, track work in Agra metro is being done by ultra-modern imported Flash Butt welding technique. This reduces the time for welding two rails from 50 minutes to 15 minutes. Bundelkhand expressway till recently held the record fastest DBM (dense bituminous mecadam) laying. In the upcoming Lucknow Kanpur expressway, the 3D AMG module is being deployed for the first time in the country, making construction two times faster.

UP is also surging ahead in metro rail connectivity. What explains the push for metro connectivity in key cities? Are such projects commercially viable?

UP is indeed implementing metro projects in many cities simultaneously. Today, Metro is operational in five cities of the state and is under construction in two other cities – Agra and Meerut (as part of RRTS). But to see metro projects in isolation would be an error.

Today, UP is the only state in the country that is implementing six different mass urban rail transport systems simultaneously. Apart from metro projects, there is a semi-high speed rail project between Delhi and Meerut, also known as Meerut RRTS. This is the first of its kind project under construction anywhere in the country. Then there is a high-speed Bullet train project between Delhi to Varanasi for which DPR has been prepared and submitted to Railways. In Gorakhpur, the metro lite project has been approved. In Varanasi, the local authorities are implementing a ropeway between the Cantonment area to Godowlia. The tender for this project will open in April to finalise the construction agency. Varanasi will also see either a Metro lite or Metro neo project, DPR for which has been submitted by RITES. Then there is the Pod taxi project in Greater Noida, connecting the proposed film city with the international airport.

So the focus is on identifying and implementing urban transport projects according to the needs of the particular city. A lot of thinking and planning goes before decisions are made so that projects do not turn into white elephants in future.

As far as the commercial viability is concerned, we all know that metro projects are very capital intensive. So it takes longer for metro projects to earn money than many other projects. There are a couple of things that determine the commercial success or failure of any metro project:

One, don't expect commercial success just by building a single line of a few kilometers in a large city. Jaipur metro is a classic example. It failed because it did not expand beyond one line. You need to build sufficient lines and stations to cover large parts of the city so that the Metro becomes the preferred mode of daily commuting for people.

Two, with Metro, you also have to provide last-mile connectivity – feeder buses or e-rickshaws etc to help commuters get last-mile connectivity to and from metro stations.

Third, smart planning and execution of projects strictly adhering to timelines – delay causes cost overruns and negatively impacts commercial viability of projects as we can see in Mumbai metro execution.

Delhi metro shows the way over the years. It has expanded to every part of NCR, providing last-mile connectivity through feeder buses. And today, if we exclude the pandemic period, it has been a commercial success.

UP will soon have five international airports. India currently has close to 30 International airports in India, so this represents a good progress. What is the future of civil aviation in UP, and what would be the key issues moving forward in terms of passenger footfall and average revenues per user?

For a state as large as UP, five international airports is a necessity today. Kerala, a much smaller state, has four international airports already. UP, in turn has three operational and two under-construction international airports.

And when you look at these airports, you will find that all five are strategically located. Lucknow being the capital city, caters to a large section of flyers from all across the state. Varanasi is in Purvanchal, a major cultural and religious centre. Kushinagar in Tarai region is an important place on the Buddhist circuit. Ayodhya airport is centrally located and we all know the civilisational importance of this city. Once completed, Ram Temple and other big projects will create massive demand for air travel in the city. And the fifth Noida airport is located in the western part of the state, close to the national capital. After completion of all phases, this airport will become the largest in India.

Lucknow is already in the top 10 in terms of international passenger footfalls. It was also one of the six profit-earning airports whose operations and maintenance was leased out to the private sector a couple of years back. The other four airports also will see tremendous growth and economic success with their strategic locations and targeting of specific groups of flyers. Activation of UDAN airports will complement international airports in the state and play a significant role in the growth of the aviation sector in the state.

Looking at the prospective growth, major capacity enhancement projects are ongoing in many airports – both domestic and international. New terminals are being built at Lucknow as well as Varanasi. Prayagraj airport got a new terminal a couple of years back. Gorakhpur airport is also getting a bigger terminal.

How does your Twitter handle track key projects? What is the source of your data? Is this initiative self-driven, or do volunteer groups support you with key information?

This initiative is largely self-driven. A couple of close friends sometimes help with inputs provide feedback. Of late, some followers have started sharing updates occasionally.

The primary source of my updates is Google search. I also read local editions of many Hindi newspapers. For Google search also, I mostly use Hindi keywords. It usually takes 1-2 hours daily because details are not readily available. I also routinely check government portals like NHAI, UPEIDA etc to look for an updated status of projects. I must say here that Government agencies barring a few exceptions, are not good at sharing periodic updates of projects undertaken by them. For example, look at the UP Bridge Corporation. They must be building dozens of big bridges at important locations in the state and outside, but you won't find regular updates on that anywhere – neither on their website nor on their social media feeds.

YouTube also helps here. Many citizen volunteers share videos of progress achieved by infrastructure projects in their area.

To sum up, you need to be alert and keep your eyes and ears open all the time so that you do not miss any important news and updates.

UP has had a notorious record on social infrastructure. But things have changed for good in the last few years. What's the current status of education and health infrastructure in the state? What are the critical challenges for the new government?

To understand the current government's priority to social infrastructure, you need to look at just one sector – irrigation. More than a dozen irrigation projects that were languishing for decades were completed by this government in the last five years, helping millions of farmers and ensuring drinking waters to parched areas like Bundelkhand and Vindhya. We all know how this government prioritised and completed big projects like Saryu Nahar, Ban Sagar and Arjun Sahayak pending for decades.

Health infrastructure has seen a tremendous transformation from the earlier days. Lot of people talk about the 'medical college revolution' in state (UP has build over 30 new medical colleges in the last five years), but what many people do not know is that along with medical colleges, all attached district level hospitals were upgraded with new buildings, bed capacity, modern equipment, medical staff etc. So, it was not just a college. The state successfully created the entire medical ecosystem in close to 30 districts and the process is ongoing in 30 more districts.

UP is now the only state with 3 AIIMS – everyone knows about AIIMS at Raebareli and Gorakhpur, but very few are aware that the Institute of Medical Sciences at BHU in Varanasi has been accorded a status of AIIMS since 2018. And due to this new-found status, IMS BHU has seen tremendous upgrades to make it on par with AIIMS. It got a super speciality block, maternity hospital, cancer hospital, and a regional ophthalmology centre in the last three years.

And not just Varanasi, 300-400 bedded super speciality hospitals were constructed in 7 districts – Agra, Jhansi, Meerut, Kanpur, Prayagraj, Gorakhpur and Bareilly. Many people do not know that India's largest cancer care hospital and renal transplant centres are in UP- in Lucknow, both opened by the current government. Many cities have got world-class maternity and children's hospitals like Amethi, Lucknow, Gorakhpur and Varanasi. And this transformation is ongoing; the next five years will see complete healthcare transformation in the state.

In the education sector, considerable work has been done in the last five years. I just explained about the 'medical education revolution'. Similarly, the state is working on opening new engineering colleges in un-served districts. Four such colleges were made operational and work is ongoing in 10 more. In the same period, 51 degree colleges were opened at block levels, mostly in rural areas with no higher education colleges. Work on 6 new universities was started in last five years – Sports University in Meerut, Ayush University in Gorakhpur, State University in Aligarh, Azamgarh and Saharanpur and Medical University in Lucknow. 18 Atal Residential Schools are under construction in all divisions of the state to provide free residential education to children of migrant workers. Close to 1.4 lakh primary schools were transformed under Operation Kayakalp, providing them with all basic amenities which were lacking for all these years.

For the new government, what I see is an opportunity, not a challenge. The state now has the opportunity to work on the next level transformation of primary education and primary healthcare. These two are the most critical elements of social infrastructure impacting almost everyone in the state. It helps that the central government is implementing programs for universal provisioning of drinking water, houses, toilets etc., as the state can focus on education and health without worrying about other social sectors.

How much do you attribute the role of infrastructure push to the successful re-election bid of CM designate Yogi Adityanath?

Often people say that good economics is not good politics as it does not always translate into votes. However, this myth has been broken multiple times since 2014. In the just-concluded UP elections, it is was not just the welfare beneficiary class that voted Yogi Adityanath back to power, but the aspirational class too voted for him overwhelmingly.

A person from Meerut who used to spend 3-5 hours daily to commute to Delhi for work can now comfortably reach Delhi within 60 minutes. A small-town boy from Pratapgarh who aspires to pursue medical education can do so now in his own district. A middle-class family from Ghazipur, who is now settled in Delhi, can drive to his village to see their parents and come back to Delhi within 24 hours. A Bundelkhand villager, who did not have access to drinking water, now has a tap water connection. In many villages in Awadh, primary schools were transformed to be on par with private schools in the area.

All these people are definitely going to vote favourably for the government, which has made all this possible. And there are millions of such people. You go to YouTube and search for any infrastructure project of any state – millions of people are watching such videos every day and not just watching, they are actually tracking the progress keenly. You post a tweet about Kanpur metro. People from half a dozen other cities start asking questions about when our city will get Metro? The hunger for development is there, and there is no reason why people will not vote for development. Development has helped break caste barriers in state politics and that is one of the reasons the opposition has not been able to defeat BJP in UP since 2014 – four elections in a row.

What are the key infrastructure projects that would consider a potential game-changer for the state and can help catapult it to a trillion-dollar economy state?

Trillion-dollar economy goal cannot be achieved by delivering one or two projects. There should be a holistic approach considering all pillars of the economy. The current government seems to understand this. That is why they focus equally on large infrastructure projects, social welfare, agriculture, small scale industries etc.

In my assessment, some of the big projects which will help propel the state towards a trillion-dollar economy are:

  • Freight Corridors, both eastern and western as UP is the state where both corridors will converge at Dadri junction in Noida. Coupled with mega logistic and transport hubs being developed in Dadri, this will open up huge potential for land-locked UP by connecting it to ports on both eastern and western sides.

  • Ganga Expressway, which will open up a second east-west expressway corridor in the state, is India's largest PPP infrastructure project.

  • Two other mega projects, Delhi Varanasi High Speed Rail Corridor and Noida International Airport, will also play a big role in the state's economic growth.

  • Another important project is Bareilly Gorakhpur economic corridor, developed as part of the Ludhiana-Kolkata corridor. Investment in these projects will be almost 2.5 lakh crores. One can imagine the transformative role of these projects in creating new employment opportunities and pushing the economic growth of the state.

  • Among other projects, the Defence Corridor will have a positive impact. Other industrial parks, including the electronic manufacturing park, medical devices park and industrial clusters along expressways, will certainly help the state.

I wish all projects are completed well before 2027 so that the impact is visible to people when the state goes for polls again in 2027. I wish Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath all the best for his second term as he embarks on to continue the journey of transforming the lives of people of Uttar Pradesh.

Thank you so much for the responses. We wish you the best.

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